Mainstreaming renewables

The dynamic head of New South Wales's new Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) in Australia, Cathy Zoi, has a three-year mission to bring clean energy in from the wilderness through a sharp commercial focus. SEDA will "invest" A$39 million to develop the market for energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies under founding legislation to reduce greenhouse gases.

Australia's energy sector is as intransigent and convention bound as any in the West. Despite a vast renewable energy resource, the fossil fuel dominated sector has paid renewables scant attention. What's more, it seems to be several years behind the times in its perception of renewable energy, wind technology in particular. Things are changing, though. And nowhere more so than in New South Wales where the dynamic head of the new Sustainable Energy Development Authority is shaking the conventional sector awake. Cathy Zoi here talks about her aims and ambitions for wind.

Listen to most bureaucrats say "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you" and it's hard to keep a strait face. Hear Cathy Zoi say it while she looks you square in the eye, and you know she means business. The "no brag, just fact" executive officer of the Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA) in News South Wales recently told an energy industry group that her three-year mission is to bring the business of clean energy in from the wilderness through a razor-sharp commercial focus. At the end of her presentation, a stunned silence pervaded the room until one person stood up and said "Ms Zoi I just want to sayÉYES, YES, YES!"

Of course, some of the enthusiasm is directed toward the A$39 million SEDA will "invest" in the next three years to develop the market and comes at a time when other state and federal governments are slashing energy funding -- including the Energy Research and Development Corporation, which recently had its budget cut in half from $12 million to $6 million.

Forget one-off grants, Zoi told the industry. Her brief is to develop the market for energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies under founding legislation to reduce greenhouse gases. Consequently, SEDA will concentrate first on energy efficiency to plug the holes of energy waste, now draining Australia's economy. Very soon, though, Zoi sees large megawatt-sized solar and wind projects contributing clean electricity into the New South Wales competitive electricity market as part of 'green power' schemes.

"I hope Windpower Monthly readers get excited about this," she says. "We're looking for ways to get projects up and on line quickly within the next 12 to 18 months," hinting at a major announcement soon. There is 1500 MW of wind potential in New South Wales, she laments, "and we have 0.2, less than one megawatt." The upside, she adds, is the low cost of wind and the strategic positioning of power producers and retailers in the demand for green electricity. "There is," she says emphatically, "a huge market to be filled."

"Solar and wind are the two technologies consumers believe are the most desirable," she continues, citing retailer EnergyAustralia's "Pure Energy" pilot programme where consumers can spend "the equivalent of buying two litres of milk per week and get all their electricity from green sources."

This "milk fund," about $2.85 a week, will finance a huge growth in wind and solar power, she says and will be duplicated in other parts of the state. Already, says Zoi, EnergyAustralia is finding it has more customers for clean power than it has green generating capacity on line.

One of SEDA's first actions to develop the wind market was to hire New Zealand-based Design Power to "augment" wind data in the state -- data that is currently (and interestingly) held in commercial confidence by the publicly-owned Pacific Power. "SEDA will seed market and telescope the time frame by financing the collection of data to make it easier for developers," says Zoi.

Zoi's bold vision starts when you cross the threshold of SEDA's Sydney office, being retrofitted with low impact building materials and the latest in energy efficient lighting. This is off-the-shelf technology that will reduce lighting costs by 30%. Speaking through the dust and noise of the renovation, American-born Zoi seems determined to follow the environmental practice of her previous boss, Bill Clinton, and lead by example. As the former deputy chief of staff in charge of "greening" the White House, Zoi helped retrofit the historic building to make it a model of energy and environmental performance.

Describing herself as one of "an unusual group of entrepreneurial people who happen to be in government," Zoi's considerable record includes a stint with the US Environmental Protection Agency where she helped develop "Green Lights" -- a partnership programme to install energy efficient lighting in Fortune 500 companies. She hopes this range of experience will translate to Australia, but warns "there is no silver bullet." Programmes must be designed to solve the problems and barriers within each sector. The key, she believes, "is to make it easier to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing."

Zoi admits her attitude "may sound Pollyannish," but she is unapologetic, adding "I'm one of these people that believes problems create opportunities." Citing the "chaos" of the emerging competitive markets in electricity as a case in point, Zoi is bullishly emphatic: "Bring on the competition. Let's make it happen."

With the weight of such a successful entrepreneurial career, her infectious enthusiasm -- and the "whole-hearted support" of the New South Wales government -- Zoi's serendipitous splash into the turbulent waters of the Australian electricity industry and government bureaucracies has already created ripples with tsunami potential.

One of those ripples is changing the language of the industry -- particularly the phrase alternative energy. "I hate the word alternative. It connotes something that is not mainstream and we are in the business of mainstreaming."

Such "aggressive" behaviour by the forthright "problems are opportunities" Zoi has left the conservative male dominated power industry like a Bond martini: shaken, not stirred. It seems they will just have to get used to it.

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